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The cultural origins of the foods we love

I just acquired the following, utterly charming bit of information (well, I think it's utterly charming, but I'm a total geek about things like this) -

Why do Jews traditionally eat gefilte fish on shabbat/holidays? Because according to religious law, you cannot separate the flesh of a fish from its bones during rest days - doing so counts as work, and thus is prohibited. Gefilte fish evolved as a way of allowing observant Jews to serve fish for their festive meals without violating this prohibition.

I am now fascinated by this sort of information. There are sociological, religious, etc. explanations for many, many kinds of dishes. Would you share your favourite story about how a traditional foodstuff, culinary practice, etc. developed??

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  1. That's definitely true! Additionally however, gefilte fish is traditionally eaten during Pesach (Passover)- one of the main ingredients in addition to fish of course is matzo meal. [I do find this tidbit funny as the idea behind eating matzo is to remember how the Jews fleeing Ancient Egypt didn't have time to make regular bread...and yet we are allowed to eat matzo balls and gefilte fish! :} ...though for the record some ultra orthodox do not- they stick to the matzo]

    3 Replies
    1. re: NicoleFriedman

      The real miracle is not the loaves and fishes (Actually, everybody wanted to be polite so they just brought their own lunch!). The real miracle is how even the poorest Jewish peasants in the Eastern European ghettos were able to feed their big families, and whoever else showed up at the seder, when maybe they could only afford one measly fish and some matzohs to make a first course. Gefilte fish was a way to feed a lot of people by stretching out a little bit of fish.

      1. re: niki rothman

        Niki, I'm not Jewish (although an equally Japanese-American cousin and family are), but if I were to convert, you would be the person I would call. "Brought their own lunch!" Hilarious--but meaningful: there are a lot of cultures that would have shown up with their own lunch, water, wine, and towel if you happened to have to stay over.

      2. re: NicoleFriedman

        There was a documentary either on History or Discovery channels, I forgot about what, but they theorized that the Jewish tradition to remove chametz (anything from grains) from their homes during Pesach probably came from ancient Jews' tradition for spring cleaning - removing old moldy grains that may attract rodents and thus spread plague.

      3. OK, here's one (courtesy of my Chinese wife):

        Formal Chinese banquets are always 12 courses. (My waistline is testament to this!!) Because the Chinese horoscope is based on a 12-year cycle, each course represents one year of the cycle. Similarly, when money is given to children on Chinese New Year or their birthday, the amount should always be a multiple of 12, lest you anger one of the signs.

        1. A cultural ecologist's (type of anthopologist) tale: sacred cows in India were so because they provided draft power for the all important rice crop estblishment at the start of the rainy season, but were not needed thereafter. They grazed roadsides and the like for the rest of the year, not competing for scarce resources, like pasture for milk cows. Sacredness protected them from being made into steaks or shoes by the "backward castes".

          Turns out that the actual draft oxen were carefully tended given their importance.

          A case of an cultural ecological explanation debunked by further investigation.

          1. Something I found quite interesting, the reason why Catholics eat fish on fridays has no religious reason what so ever... the reason it happened was, in the middle Ages when everyone had to pay tithe to the church, the fishmongers and fisherman weren't selling any fish, most people bought beef or pork, so they told appealed to the Pope, saying that there would be no more cash from their guild if they couldn't afford to pay.. so the good Pope decreed that people had to eat fish one day a week and he chose Fridays...

            4 Replies
            1. re: Lightsuprooms

              fascinating! I have ALWAYS wanted to know that....

              1. re: The Oracle

                Getting ready for Passover I should be relating some gefilte or matzo ball soup story but instead:
                Tempura is from the Portugese. They had missions and trade in Japan, even during the Tokugawa Period, 1600-1857, a time of strict isolationism in Japan.

                1. re: Leonardo

                  That's right, and it may be why my family really only made the stuff for hakujins.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    well, that is technically true that the portugese introduced tempura to japan (witness the way they write the word tempura using a bit of katakana usually) but to say that it is not wholly japanese at this point is to overstate the port-influence. altho tempura fried veggies and shrimp may be over-represented in most japanese restaurant in the US, japanese folk in Japan do indeed eat a great deal of the stuff and many have no idea of the port-origin.

            2. Here's one that interests me but I can only guess about its origins because I don't know and haven't found anything in the literature of American food history. In the United States there are two ways of making dumplings: a) a soft dough is dropped into boiling liquid by spoonfuls and steamed and b) dough is rolled out to make fat noodles which are cooked in boiling broth. The fat noodle dumplings are identified with the American South. How did this difference develop? I don't know, but my guess is that Scotch-Irish settlers (who abounded in the South) learned to roll the fat noodles from their German neighbors---those two groups followed the same migration routes and came here during the same era. If anybody knows about this I'd be interested to hear.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Querencia

                Here in Maryland we refer to those as 'slippery dumplings'. Incredibly easy to make, they are just flour, salt and water. Roll them out and drop them on top of whatever is in the pot. They are 'slippery' because of the fat that sits on top of the broth in which they cook. However, I have absolutely no idea of their origin.

                1. re: eddieandcleo

                  In my family dumplings are made of biscuit dough, patted out about a quarter inch thick and cut into pieces about an inch square. You do this on a well-floured board, and make sure there's plenty of flour clinging to them when you throw them into the broth to cook, which helps thicken the broth. We're mostly from the south.

              2. on the topic of mahtzah i think it kind of odd that most commercially available versions are made of refined wheat. and dont get me wrong, i am not veiling a now trendy everything must be whole wheat argument, just pointing out that the making of mahtzah (a very 'basic' dough) is supposed to derive from poverty, lacking, having only the basics, etc. the idea of NOT having refined, so-called elegant things. refined, white flour is exactly that, tho! whole wheat mahtzah would be much more inline with idea of using the basics, the elements, to produce something nourishing, easily.
                (oh, and btw, you CAN indded find whole wheat mahtzahs in many stores nowadays)

                1. "Why do Jews traditionally eat gefilte fish on shabbat/holidays? Because according to religious law, you cannot separate the flesh of a fish from its bones during rest days - doing so counts as work, and thus is prohibited. Gefilte fish evolved as a way of allowing observant Jews to serve fish for their festive meals without violating this prohibition."

                  I respectfully disagree.

                  To begin with, as far as Shabbat is concerned, ANY kind of work is prohibited. Even cooking gefilte fish. If it is to be eaten on Shabbat, it must be prepared the day before.

                  Regarding the other holidays, work required to prepare meals for that same holiday is allowed. (Mishnah, Massechet Beitza, for more details).

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: RicRios

                    I'm not actually sure that we're disagreeing - I think we might just be making different points. I wasn't claiming - and I should apologize if I gave this impression - that the only prohibition on working on Shabbat involves separating the flesh of a fish from its bones. There are many, many kinds of prohibited work, including all cooking. But this latter was already familiar to me and, I suspect, to anyone with even a small dose of exposure to Judaism. What I found interesting, and thought might be fun to share, was the detail that I had just newly learned, and which I don't think is widely known, namely that the separating of the flesh of a fish from its bones counts as work, and that that is part of the origin of gefilte fish, in particular, as a food that is served on Shabbat (as opposed to the general category of foods that are prepared and cooked beforehand).

                    1. re: chloe103

                      I'm missing something. What's the diff between cooking and filetting fish vs. gefilte fish, since both must be done the day before? If you can't cook, you can't make gefilte fish on Shabbat. You can eat it - but then you can eat poached filets as well. I would guess that the economics of eating every little piece of protein you could find was more of a driver for gefilte fish than preparing for the sabbath.

                      1. re: applehome

                        The prohibition in question (not the generic one about cooking), as far as I understand it, is on separating the flesh of a fish from its bones. So I wouldn't be able to eat a piece of fish that I had cooked prior to Shabbat on Shabbat, if that piece of fish had bones in it. So there is no difference, halachically speaking, between a piece of fish that has been filetted and cooked prior to Shabbat, and a piece of gefilte fish. There is, however, a difference between either of those things and a piece of fish that has been cooked but not filetted before Shabbat.

                        1. re: chloe103

                          Shabbat requires 100% "ready to eat" (best examples: gefilte fish -cold dish-, cholent -hot dish, kept hot from day before- )
                          Main point of friendly fire here was, in my view, your mention of holidays together with Shabbat.
                          As I said above, as far as holidays is concerned, any type of work required to prepare food for that specific holiday is allowed. Including lighting fires, deboning fish, even slaughtering (with certain limitations, too technical to get into details...) .